I remember my first taste of Scotch. I was perhaps 13 years old, standing in the kitchen with my Father, who held a glass of Scotch over ice in his hands. My Father was not much of a drinker, and this is the only memory I have of him drinking, although I know my parents served alcohol at bridge parties.
I thought it was so pretty, that scotch, the deep golden color and the way the light shimmered through the clear glass and over the ice.
"What's that?" I asked my Dad, regarding the amber liquid in the glass.
"What does it taste like?"
My Dad paused for several long moments, and contemplated his answer.
"Try it," he said, and he offered me a sip.
Here was my thinking. With a name like Scotch, and given that honey-gold color, it had to taste of liquid butterscotch candy, right?
So I took a sip and swallowed a nostril flaming, lip burning, mouth scorching, throat searing slug of cauterizing booze.
It did not taste like butterscotch. Not at all.
I wrinkled my incinerated nose in pain and disgust and beat a hasty retreat.
Lest you think him cruel, let me go on record to say that I adored my Father and I know exactly what went through his mind when he tipped the glass in my direction.
"She won't like this," he thought. "Bet it will be a hell of a long time before she ever tries another drink."
He was right. It was decades before I'd ever sample another alcoholic beverage other than wine and the rare beer.
Now I am more adventurous, and as my last blog post indicates, I am willing to challenge old prejudices with regard to food and drink. Part of my culinary exploration has been to embrace the traditional foods of my Scottish heritage. And if there is one beverage associated with the land of the Scots, it is Scotch whiskey.
It was only two years ago, attending my first Scottish Games, that I learned about Whiskey tastings. In my ignorance, I thought all whiskeys tasted pretty much alike. Now I realize what an absurd assumption that was. Of course there is as much to appreciate among the various styles of scotch as there are in wine or any other artisanal food.
Still, even as my curiosity about scotch grew, I avoided the tastings, assuming it would be too much alcohol for me to consume at one time.
Then two events coincided to reintroduce me to whiskey. The first was the publication of Kate Hopkins' (of Accidental Hedonist fame) book, 99 Drams of Whiskey, a fascinating beverage and travel memoir I read with great interest. (More on Kate's book later). The second was yet another opportunity for a scotch tasting, this time at the Burn's Night Supper of 2009 which I attended in Davis.
It was time to give scotch another try. When I made the reservations for my husband, son Ethan and I to attend the Burn's Supper, the proprietors included an option, for a cost of forty dollars, to sample four different Scotch whiskeys in addition to the dinner of salmon or steak with whiskey sauce. My husband Jim and I discussed the idea, and we decided to order one flight of scotches (with my salmon dinner) and share them. Ethan, age 19 at the time, would be the designated driver. I was told I would be presented with a list of the whiskeys on offer, and select four of them to sample in the tasting.
The afternoon before we went to the dinner, I was doubtful. I had no basis of experience upon which to make the selections of the whiskeys. I wish I could tell you exactly what resources I found, but all I remember is that I frantically scanned Kate Hopkins' book and web site and links on her site, and determined that if nothing else, I'd like to try Glenmorangie (reputed to be the favorite Scotch of many Scottish people), and something from Speyside, which, being located on the coast of Scotland, supposedly tastes like the sea. I wanted to taste truly Scottish Scotch.
Once we arrived at the Burn's Supper, we were seated and ordered dinner. I got a wrist bracelet that alerted the waiter that I had paid for the whiskey tasting in addition to my dinner. The waiter brought us a two page typed list of nothing less than 51 different scotch beverages available. I was told to mark the four I wanted to taste.
Many of the names listed were familiar-- Ballentine, Bushmill, Crown Royal, Dewar's, Glenlivet, Jack Daniel.
But I was determined to sample something less familiar and hopefully more representative of the best Scotland had to offer of their national drink. I ran my gaze down the alphabetized list and exulted to find two versions of the Glenmorangie, a 12 year and a 15 year old bottle. I marked the 15 year Glenmorangie.
Further down the page I saw something called Laphroaig. That sounded Scottish and I didn't have any idea how to pronounce it. I marked it.
At the bottom of the second page I saw something called "Speyburn". Reasoning it came from the Speyside region, I marked it.
Finally, I marked an Oban 14 year old scotch, because I figured it came from Oban.
Some of you Scotch drinkers reading this may scream at me for these choices. The per-glass price for each Scotch was listed next to the title, and they ranged from the cheapest at $4 a glass to the most expensive at $30 a glass (Royal Salute Chivas 21 year). There was also a Glenlivet 21 year old for $25 a glass. My choices cost $10 each for the Glenmorangie 15 year, the Oban 14 year, and the Laphroaig. The Speyburn was listed at $6.
Here's another opportunity for you to scream at me: I didn't really know how to taste the scotch. I didn't know I probably ought to have added a little water first, to open up the scotch and let it reveal itself to me. Instead, I approached it as I would a wine: I inhaled the aroma, sipped it and swirled it around in my mouth.
Here is the completely random order in which we tasted the scotches: 1. Oban, 2. Speyburn, 3. Laphroaig, 4. Glenmorangie.
If I spent a few hours searching, I might be able to find the scribbled tasting notes cobbled together from my husband and I as we sampled the scotches. But I confess I am a very poor descriptor of the riot of flavors we encountered. We went back and forth among the glasses, making remarks, pro and con and quizzical. I do remember that I enjoyed every scotch, and that I was surprised at how light and subtle the Speyburn tasted. And yes, it did seem to remind me of the ocean spray and bracing breezes of the seaside. (OK so maybe I am suggestible and a bit too romantic about this tasting business.)
But the Glenmorangie! So complex, so deep, so dazzling, with a long and satisfying finish. It was really wonderful, and my favorite by far.
Despite the fact that we sampled four different scotches between us, neither Jim nor I felt even the tiniest bit inebriated when we left the Burn's Supper. Granted, we took our time and lingered over our meal, the music, the haggis, the Burn's poetry-- all of it. Nevertheless we let Ethan drive us home that night. One can never be too careful when it comes to sober driving.
Sometime in the weeks after the tasting, I visited a beverage store and sought out a bottle of Glenmorangie. The price tag (was it $150?) put me off, especially since drinking or cooking with spirits is something I rarely do. But if they sold it in smaller bottles it would be a luxury indulgence I would relish. Someday.
Coming up soon: A proper review of 99 Drams of Whiskey by Kate Hopkins.